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04.11.2020

The Potential of our Relationships

Link Up worker Hannah Kirby reflects on Hilary Cottam’s book ‘Radical Help’ and the parallels with Inspiring Scotland’s community development and wellbeing programme.

 “To solve today’s problems we need collaboration, we need to be part of the change and we need systems that include all of us… And to do this we need to start in people’s lives. We need to stand in communities and understand both the problems and the possibilities from this everyday perspective.” Hilary Cottam, Radical Help (2018)

I recently read ‘Radical Help’ by Hilary Cottam, which presents the stories of people moving through the current care, health and benefits system, rarely achieving the changes they need, and worse, feeling weighed down by the interventions that the welfare state has made in their lives. Rooted in real-life long-term experiments, the book makes the case for a welfare system firmly based on three key components: relationships, capabilities, openness. These struck a chord with me as a Link Up worker in Leith.

Relationships: taking the time to build trust and allowing people to lead can go a long way to solve deep-seated problems. According to Cottam, “to solve today’s problems we need collaboration, we need to be part of the change and we need systems that include all of us… And to do this we need to start in people’s lives. We need to stand in communities and understand both the problems and the possibilities from this everyday perspective.”

“When people feel supported by strong human relationships, change happens.” H Cottam

In Link Up, we start by getting to know our area and its people, strengths and problems, and what makes it unique. We support people to start groups and activities they wish to create, and through this, we enable them to form new friendships. We also offer flexible and more intensive support one-to-one. Critically, we are trusted to take time to get to know people and we know that if things are tough, we will receive support rather than blame.

I liked Cottam’s starting point based on trust and respect when supporting people, beginning “with an invitation, not an order, command, assessment to be judged by or referral to attend.” Families in Swindon who were passed between social workers, police, schools, doctors with nothing ever changing, decided they trusted Cottam’s ‘Life’ team enough to work with them long-term. The families were able to be in charge of choosing the sort of help they needed, and as things got calmer, they were able to build on their strengths to work towards the future they wanted. The workers too found that they were able to build real relationships with the families based on trust and respect, and felt they were supported to really make a difference. All these are strong features of my work too.

Capabilities: Cottam’s team and Link Up also share a focus on developing strengths and ‘capabilities. In Link Up, when we are getting to know people, we try to see what they are already good at and interested in. As people start groups with others based around these skills and interests, they often get a lot out of learning and practising a craft or skill together. The focus isn’t on problems – although we always have a deep awareness of what participants might be facing – it’s on fun, and building on the strengths that are already there. Cottam focuses on people’s hopes, skills and aspirations. She seeks to develop four capabilities – all equally core to our work: “the capability to work/learn; to be healthy; to be part of the community; and to nurture relationships within the family and beyond.”

Openness: all of Cottam’s experimental projects benefited from many different people using them, rather than being rationed or narrowly targeted at specific issues. For example, Circle – the network for older people offering social opportunities and practical help: the bigger and more diverse the group, the more opportunities for people to form connections and help each other. The worker’s role being to help make connections and ensure no one is left out.

In Link Up, we find this openness not only builds opportunities for exchanging ideas and skills, but also really suits those who can’t engage with the traditional models of help on offer, especially for their mental health. It feels natural and normal, rather than stigmatising and targeted at people’s deficiencies. And so sometimes our role is as simple as introducing neighbours who wouldn’t have otherwise met – creating more trust and connection in a community; for others it is regular one-to one-support, sometimes boosted by input from a psychotherapist we partner with. 

It’s wonderful when groups go well and people find their potential, take leading roles, build on their interests and make friends. The confidence and self-esteem that come from using skills and making friends enables people to take huge steps forward. And we have the privilege of witnessing the great strength and courage of people overcoming the massive obstacles in their lives and communities together.

As Cottam sums up: “A relational way of working, thinking and designing is one that creates possibility for change, one that creates abundance.”

Hannah Kitchen Kirby

Link Up Development Worker (Inspiring Leith)

Find out more about the special contributions and positive impact Link Up teams are making to communities across Scotland in Link Up’s 2020 Annual Publication.

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